Almost two years since he last started a major league game, Kris Medlen pitched like he wanted to stay there.
The Braves right-hander allowed one run and four hits in five innings of a 7-1, rain-delayed win against the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night at Turner Field, extending Atlanta’s winning streak to seven games. The Braves have won 14 of the past 15 games started by Medlen, who had 14 starts in 2010.
“He gave us everything we wanted him to,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Medlen, who made his first start of the season after 38 relief appearances. “He was trying to talk us into going one more inning, but no chance. He goes back (to start) on Sunday, and we’ll add another 20-25 pitches to his outing and hopefully get us deeper in the ballgame.”
Juan Francisco had three hits and Brian McCann and Tyler Pastornicky homered for the Braves, who got their 17th win in 22 games to move to a season-high 15 over .500.
But the story Tuesday was Medlen, who will stay in the starting rotation at least until Tommy Hanson returns from a stint on the 15-day disabled list for a strained back.
“Compared to 2010 when I got the opportunity to start, I felt so much more calm this time — I think it helped me a lot,” said Medlen (2-1), who threw 40 strikes in 57 pitches and had one walk and three strikeouts. “I just felt like I was in control. I was trying to pound the zone. I knew I had a pitch count but I wasn’t too worried about it. I just knew I had to be efficient and I was throwing strikes and Mac called a great game.”
Medlen got a win and the Braves pulled within 2-1/2 games of National League East leader Washington, which lost 8-0 to Philadelphia. The Braves finished 18-8 in July and the Nationals 17-9.
“It seems like they don’t lose,” McCann said of the Nationals. “This is the best baseball we’ve played this year, and those guys are playing great too. They seem to win all the time, so to win and them lose, that’s big for us. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing, putting together great at-bats, getting great starting pitching, and our bullpen speaks for itself, in my opinion.”
McCann praised the performance of Medlen, who finally got to start after being sent to the minors earlier in the season to build arm strength for a possible move to the rotation, only to have team officials go in a different direction at that time.
“That guy impresses me all the time,” McCann said. “I worked out with him this offseason. He’s such an athlete. We’d throw the football around and he doesn’t drop a pass. He’s one of those guys that’s an unbelievable athlete; he can do anything.
“They’ve thrown a lot at him this year. They’ve asked him to start, relieve, got to the minor leagues and come back. To keep your mental makeup and your mental toughness, that says a lot about who he is. He’s here to help this team win, and that performance right there – he started right where he left off in 2010. He was one of our best starters in 2010, but he got hurt.”
Medlen didn’t return after a 1-hour, 53-minute rain delay before the sixth inning. He wouldn’t have even if there was no delay, because Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell had decided five innings would be his limit.
“He was done after five,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not the pitch count, it’s sometimes going up and down, up and down [between innings]. And that last inning, Roger said, ‘I think he’s struggling a little bit now.’ So I think it was a good outing for him to go on to the next one.”
Four relievers worked a scoreless inning apiece including demoted started Jair Jurrjens, whose place Medlen took in the rotation. Jurrjens allowed one hit in the ninth inning in the first relief appearance of his career.
Braves pitchers have a 1.43 ERA during the seven-game winning streak, with 10 earned runs allowed in 63 innings.
“We had five guys with multi-hits today,” Gonzalez said. ” Two nights in a row we’ve had to cover four innings out of the bullpen and we gave up one run yesterday and nothing today…. We swung the bats wel and pitched well, that’s a good combination.”
Francisco had a two-run single in the three-run first inning, and McCann’s home run in the third put the Braves ahead 4-1 and made it the first nine-homer month of his career.
Pastornicky led off the sixth with a homer, the second for the rookie and first as a pinch-hitter.
Medlen’s fifth pitch was a 90-mph fastball that Donnie Murphy hit over the center-field fence for a 1-0 Marlins lead with one out in the first inning. Jose Reyes followed with an infield single, but Medlen induced a double-play grounder from Carlos Lee to end the inning, the last time he would pitch without a lead Tuesday.
“He’s a baseball player and he likes to compete,” Gonzalez said. “He just happens to be a pitcher. I love the mound presence, I love getting the ball, back on the rubber, ‘Here it is,’ throw it. Murphy hits a home run on the [fifth] pitch of the game and that didn’t bother him. Here it is, hit another one. I like that. I like the tempo that he showed on the mound. He’s got an opportunity, with Tommy going on the DL, maybe get two or three starts and see what he can do.”
The Braves, who trailed in only one inning during their three-game weekend sweep against Philadelphia and never in Monday’s 8-2 win against Miami, answered with three runs in the bottom of the first.
After one-out singles by Martin Prado and Jason Heyward, there was a balk by Ricky Nolasco (8-10). McCann drove in the tying run with a groundout, and two walks loaded the bases for Francisco, Chipper Jones’ third-base backup.
Francisco had a two-out, two-run single Monday, and he did it again Tuesday. His single drove in Prado and Heyward for a 3-1 lead.
Francisco went 3-for-3 with a double and an intentional walk, making him 10-for-17 with two homers and eight RBIs in his past eight games.
McCann has nine homers and 21 RBIs in an 18-game tear that began July 5, the day the Braves began their 17-5 stretch that includes 10 wins in 12 home games.
Staked to a 3-1 lead after an inning, Medlen knew what to do with it. The 26-year-old Californian allowed only two runners to advance past first base after the Murphy homer, once due to a Francisco error.
When he moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation during the 2010 season, Medlen went 5-0 with a 3.86 ERA in 14 starts and the Braves won 13. Teammates say they relish playing behind him because he works quickly, throws a lot of strikes and gets plenty of groundballs — things that keep defenders on their toes and wired into a game.
His last start before was Aug. 4, 2010, when he went 4-1/3 innings against the Mets and left with a torn elbow ligament that required “Tommy John” surgery and sidelined him until the final week of the 2011 season.
Before the Braves decided last week to move him to the rotation in place of struggling Jair Jurrjens, Medlen had a 2.48 ERA in 38 relief appearances, including an 0.55 ERA in 16-1/3 innings in July.
When the Braves finalized a trade late Monday for Cubs starting pitcher Paul Maholm, it seemed Medlen would be one-and-done in the starting rotation. But the Braves placed Hanson on the DL Tuesday and announced Medlen would stay in the rotation and start Sunday against Houston.
Braves general manager Frank Wren was asked Tuesday afternoon if Medlen would return to the bullpen after Hanson returned from the DL.
“I would think that would be the assumption today,” Wren said. “But Kris is a talented guy. He can do a lot of things.”